Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) gives greater detail to the argument that America’s economic fortune was built upon an infrastructure forged by slavery. In the wake of the bloody Civil War, the second industrial era’s twin links of mass production and mass consumerism birthed unforeseen prosperity and inequality. Yes, good ol’ American ingenuity and innovation had plenty to do with the boom, but as Baptist writes, an economic trampoline had been constructed before the war through the hands, arms, and torsos of enslaved Americans.
Baptist argues that white historians’ over-emphasis upon American ingenuity and innovation is part of the ruse to downplay our enslaving heritage. He also argues that the North wasn’t exempt from the economic benefit provided by southern slavery. Southern cotton fields produced millions of fiber bales that were eventually processed into clothes and durables in English mills, but northern states’ industry supported the enslaving enterprise with bank credit that financed firms selling slaves, and saws to clear-cut fields and shovels to till soil. If you assume that Baptist writes history from a narrow perspective because he is black, check yourself. He’s white and grew up in North Carolina. He teaches nineteenth-century history at Cornell University, and tells students, as he does readers of his book, that cotton was the nineteenth century’s oil that fueled the majority of its economic activity before the latter resource did the same for the following century.
The United States outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, but enforcement lagged. Domestic slave trading was not addressed by the new law. The Half Has Never Been Told chronicles, among other moral transgressions of the era, the constant breaking apart of black families in Virginia – a true feeder system – as the economic locus in southern states and territories shifted from Old Dominion tobacco farms to cotton plantations in the Deep South. While reading Baptist’s descriptions of forceful family breakups (not only in Virginia), the connection between that brutal history and present-day realities suffered by numerous African-American families made me shake my head in shame. Enslavement is inequality at its most basic and gruesome level. Its effects didn’t simply fade away with the passage of time, and have been girded up by prejudice and racism which still thrives, incredibly, in the twenty-first century, in this land where we profess to uphold “liberty and justice for all.”
Of course, I can be aghast. I had a solid northern upbringing in the Land of Lincoln, no less, that included the following teaching about the Civil War: the battle was all about slavery. When I moved to Texas more than twenty-five years ago, I picked up the alternative notion that the Civil War was about the North attempting to dominate the South economically. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument, but noticed that a lot of research and footnoting went into it. In recent years, I’ve also read about “states’ rights” as a justification for the war. Both arguments contain some truth, but not enough to override or even dent Baptist’s assertion: the Civil War was not only about the maintenance of slavery, but its expansion. The vestiges of that desire plague this society yet today.
Before the Civil War, ten of the fifteen presidents owned slaves, eight of them while serving the office. This society – down to its core DNA – has always been a conflicted jumble consisting of freedoms, privileges, and advantages for some, and enslavement, bondage, and inequalities for others. I’m not mocking the values that we hold dear and confess to be part of our heritage. I’m doubling down on one of Baptist’s points: the playing field has always been significantly imbalanced and not to recognize it only perpetuates its effects. As I argue in Just a Little Bit More, the pursuit of Mammon has been the overriding spirit that has, in great part, made this country what it is. Our true national religion – the pursuit of “just a little bit more” – is simultaneously a great blessing and curse. This spirit helped build this country into the leading economic power in the world. But it also justified slavery the during the colonial days and the first eighty-five years of the nation’s existence, and the effect of this justification lingers like a permanent hangover.
Reading Baptist’s book made me think: How many kick-ass business types – money accumulation and attainment their modus operandi – would be enslavers if they had lived in pre-Civil War days (or would be today if slavery were still legal)?
Provocative blog posts titles, posed as hypothetical questions, don’t prove anything. They can, however, spur our thinking. In the oval office, the current president proudly has hung a portrait of the seventh president. Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, helped clear out Native Americans from Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi via the infamous “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. Much of this land, in subsequent years, produced cotton picked by enslaved people, many who had been forcibly marched south and west from Virginia or South Carolina.
The challenge to look at and understand history in a new way can lead to transformed thinking, which in turn can lead to actions and interactions of greater love, clarity, and justice. May it be so in this land of stony roads and chastening rods that have not wiped out the faith and hope taught – and wrought – even from the dark past.
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville (forthcoming, spring 2019).